June 1, 2009

HOW DO YOU ASK A KOREAN TO BE THE LAST KOREAN TO DIE FOR YOUR MISTAKE?

The power of presidential restraint (James Carroll | June 1, 2009, Boston Globe)

[T]here is another, less noted - more authentic - way that Korea saved us. At first, General Douglas MacArthur led a brilliant offensive against the North Koreans, driving them back across the parallel and ever closer to the Yalu River, the Chinese border. Then China stunned MacArthur, in November 1950, by sending hundreds of thousands of its soldiers across the river - a "Chicom" rout of Yanks.

MacArthur retreated down much of the peninsula, warning Washington of a coming American Dunkirk, a desperate evacuation of troops by sea. MacArthur demanded that Truman authorize use of atomic weapons in battle. The Air Force chief of staff, General Hoyt Vandenberg, proposed a preemptive nuclear attack against the Soviet Union. Truman later wrote, "I could not bring myself to order the slaughter of 25,000,000 non-combatants . . . I just could not make the order for a Third World War." Truman said no to MacArthur, the beginning of the famous dispute that would lead to the general's dismissal the following April.

American troops valiantly hung on, finally clawing their way back up to the 38th parallel. Truman chose to abandon victory rather than order total war. The resulting stalemate defines the problem between North and South Korea to this day. But in the forgotten war, Truman's refusal to order the use of atomic weapons is, except to a handful of historians, the forgotten decision. Its impact has been as permanent as it has been underappreciated, for the effect of Truman's rejection of the atomic bomb at that moment of extremity - America facing the worst defeat in its history - was to establish a taboo against nuclear use that has lasted all these years. That the president who ordered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when it was militarily dubious to do so, was the one to reject the atomic bombing of enemy forces in Korea, when it seemed militarily essential to do so, made the point. Because Washington did not use atomic weapons when, with relatively little danger to itself, it could have, other nuclear powers joined in regarding the use of these weapons as beyond the pale. If Truman had chosen otherwise, whether "successfully" or not, there can be little doubt that nuclear weapons would have been used again, and probably again, until . . .

This unsung story of presidential restraint has profound relevance for the present crisis.


Given that the North Korean regime has killed an estimated 3 million people through starvation alone, they've paid an intolerably high price for Truman's, and our, squeamishness. Given estimates of some 100 million killed by Communism overall, even Truman's own conscience-soothing estimate of 25 million deaths to win the Cold War would obviously have been well worthwhile.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 1, 2009 5:35 AM
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